“As a kid, I thought if I could combine physics and New Mexico, I could be happy.”
Oppenheimer is a 2023 Universal Pictures film written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Take away all the physics, the politics, the engineering and the emotional entanglements and the film boils down to a dispute between two men. A petulant misunderstanding on one part, later some light-hearted mockery on the other and it was done. Their fates were set. It seems that one couldn’t bear to lose the ear of the President, one couldn’t bear to live in the shadow of the other, one had to make the other pay for slights real or imagined.
The movie is based on the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird. Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr. and Emily Blunt lead an expansive ensemble cast including Matt Damon, Matthew Modine, Florence Pugh, Jack Quaid, Dane DeHaan, Alden Ehrenreich, Rami Malek, Josh Hartnett, Dylan Arnold, Casey Affleck, David Dastmalchian, Kenneth Branagh, Bennie Safdie, Olivia Thirlby, Jason Clarke, David Krumholtz, Gustaf Skarsgård, Tony Goldwyn, Emma Dumont, James Remar and many others, along with Tom Conti and Gary Oldman
Like Nolan’s 2000 film Memento, portions of Oppenheimer are shot in black and white, using analog film stock. The black and white scenes depict things that are said before witnesses or on the record, Oppenheimer’s personal recollections are in crisp, digital color.
Oppenheimer’s structure is non-linear. The story is a series of Matryoshka, Russian nesting dolls. The initial hearings are the scaffolding frame holding the whole story together. Immediately beneath, the next layer depicts Oppenheimer’s days of testimony before the Atomic Energy Commission. That testimony in turn, allows for a delving into Oppenheimer’s past, early education, and influences but culminates with a focus on the Manhattan Project, the crash program ordered by President Roosevelt to build an atomic bomb for America and the Allies before the Nazis built one of their own. Oppenheimer was chosen to manage that effort. That focus intensifies during the later days of the program as the team at the Los Alamos Laboratories prepares for their test of the implosion device. It is the first detonation of an atomic device ever, a test known as Trinity, named by Oppenheimer, who was inspired by a fragment of a poem by the 17th century English writer Jon Donne, “Batter my heart, three-person’d god.”
Christopher Nolan has crafted a magnificent, beautifully shot, nearly flawless film. Oppenheimer weaves a compelling tale of bureaucratic backstabbing, high historical drama, deep personal pathos and political intrigue into a cohesive narrative along with the story of scientific theory turned discovery turned into a practical, constructed device, one of the most famous devices in history. Oppenheimer makes a good effort at being historically accurate and could almost be called an educational film. Go, you might learn something. Oppenheimer is also extraordinarily loud in certain moments. The three hour run time may be off putting to some, but go to the bathroom beforehand. Oppenheimer is a cinematic experience that shouldn’t be missed.
“In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains, on the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows, in sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame, the good deeds a man has done before defend him.”
It is 1959. Former Presidential Atomic Energy Advisor and outgoing head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss (Downey Jr.) is encountering exceptionally large amounts of friction in what he thought would be a smooth and simple confirmation hearing. After being offered his pick of Cabinet positions by President Eisenhower, he settles on Commerce. The prickly Strauss is striving for a lower profile after stepping on many toes during his rise to the top of the AEC, but feels that a Cabinet seat is something he deserves as an award for his years of government service. A coalition of irate and aggrieved scientists, known as The Last Straws Committee, angered by Strauss’ aggressive posture regarding thermonuclear weapons and his open disregard of Oppenheimer’s opposing opinions on the matter among other things, petitions and urgently urges the Senate not to confirm. Los Alamos Laboratories physicist David Hill (Malek) is called to Washington to testify at the hearing, ideally breaking the Senate logjam in Strauss’ favor.
It is 1954. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Murphy) is testifying at an Atomic Energy Commission Personal Security Board hearing alongside his wife, Kitty (Blunt). He is struggling to renew his security clearance against members of the intelligence and security services concerned about his Communist ties. Oppenheimer insists that he was never a party member, only a Fellow Traveler. Many of his associates, friends, his brother Frank (Arnold) and even his sometimes ex-girlfriend, Jean Tatlock (Pugh) are all card carrying members of the United States Communist party, which is problematic. However, all of this information was known by Washington’s spooks when they gave him the clearance in the first place. In fact, all of it was known when Lt. General Groves (Damon) asked Oppenheimer to run the Manhattan Project. Special Counsel Roger Robb (Clarke) presses Oppenheimer on the details of his past, seeking to learn if he’d let spies into Los Alamos or the Trinity test site. Robb is relentless, using secret documents Oppenheimer’s counsel isn’t cleared to be read in on and Oppenheimer is knocked off kilter and battered. Though the inquisitors see the liquor-flask-bearing Kitty as a soft mark, she presses Oppenheimer to stiffen his resolve and fight. When it is her time on the stand, Kitty has Robb’s number. She adroitly fences with him. Kitty easily toys with and then ultimately turns the tables on the Special Counsel, giving her husband fleeting hope.
It is 1945. The Trinity test is looming. Los Alamos is teeming with activity. They’re on a deadline. General Groves needs to know the bomb works before the July 17 Potsdam Conference, where President Roosevelt will be meeting with Great Britain’s outgoing Prime Minister Winston Churchill, his successor Clement Attlee and General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin. Trinity will be a test of the Fat Man implosion device, and if it fails, Oppenheimer and his team will have wasted 2.2 billion taxpayer dollars. General Nichols (DeHaan) has his doubts about Oppenheimer’s loyalties. Though they haven’t beaten the Japanese yet, the Army is looking towards the next threat in the ever-growing power of the Soviet Union. Consequently, Nichols is seeing communists and spies around every corner. Groves leans on him and Oppenheimer is granted his security clearance on the eve of the first detonation though Oppenheimer has been involved with the project since they broke ground at Los Alamos. He finds this spy hunt distracting his attention from the test. At the same time, Edward Teller (Safdie) has been pushing him to look past the A bomb. Teller wants to go further and evolve the technology. He wants to create a super-atomic, a hydrogen bomb. Teller has theorized that a fission reaction would set off an even more powerful fusion reaction and they are wasting their time with atomics. Oppenheimer mollifies him. They don’t even know if the fission bomb is going to work yet. Some of the team begin to see Oppenheimer less as a physicist and more as a politician. A bitter Teller says, “You are J. Robert Oppenheimer, the great salesman of science. You can convince anyone of anything.”
Will the Army find infiltrators at the Laboratory? Will the test fizzle or go boom? Has Groves’ faith in Oppenheimer been misplaced? Will he keep his security clearance? Will the feds go after Kitty for her communist ties after she made the inspectors look like chumps? Who gave the AEC investigators Oppenheimer’s full, unredacted file? Will Teller get his H-Bomb to work? Why is Strauss having so much trouble with his confirmation? Where are his allies and why aren’t they helping? Will he get the job?
“Robert, try not to blow up the world.”
In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus steals fire from the Gods and gave it to man, a gift of secret knowledge, a gift that led to metallurgy, science, technology and the future. The Gods harshly punish Prometheus for his present. J. Robert Oppenheimer and a small group of like-minded men ascertain the secrets of the atom. They crack reality wide open, break the atom and give man atomic fire. Oppenheimer wants to use his discoveries to end war, usher in the future, unify the world, share truth and technology. Malevolent men punish him for his perceived arrogance, his temerity in trying to drag the world, kicking and screaming, into tomorrow. Instead, those men are quite content to revel in their petty, short-sighted squabbles. Oppenheimer posits that even today, 78 years later, humans are not yet ready for the fires of Heaven.
There is a rule in film known as “Show, don’t tell.” Though sound design is an integral part of film making, movies are motion pictures and as such are an inherently visual media. Oppenheimer has the showing and the telling. Nolan manages to do both at the same time. While Murphy narrates, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s incredible brilliance allows him to envision the paths of electrons or swarms of (not-yet-invented) ballistic missiles launching into the air or the insatiable, devouring gravity monsters of space we now call Black Holes with just his imagination. He throws flutes and glasses against a wall, shattering one after another. Watching shards bounce, crash and ricochet off each other lets him picture the possibilities of sub-atomic chain reactions. The most startling visualization comes in the midst of his hearing while he is dejectedly describing the impact his infidelities and affairs have had on his loved ones.
Nolan’s oft-displayed disdain for CG is present in Oppenheimer. Much of the movie is shot on location and the Trinity test site is recreated as a particularly large model (a “big-ature”) which is blown up in an even larger chemical explosion simulating the Fat Man atomic detonation. Character aging is mostly handled with a good amount of makeup and prosthetics.
Though Oppenheimer is rightly shown as a chain-smoker, almost none of the other characters are seen with a cigarette. There are a few, but in 1945 this reviewer would expect almost everyone to be puffing, pulling or exhaling clouds while walking through or working in smoke-filled rooms.
There is a moment when the team at Los Alamos is shown footage taken from Hiroshima after the airburst detonation of their device. They see the destruction of the city, the devastation of the populace, the dead and dying. They see the broken bones, the broiled flesh of the burned people. They see shadows of people scorched on the sides of buildings. They know the survivors will die soon from radiation poisoning and are appalled at what they have wrought. Some stare in horror, some react with revulsion, Oppenheimer refuses to look. He knows he has the blood of thousands and thousands on his hands, but he tells himself all of that horror was done in the name of saving American lives and ending the war.
After the clearance hearings, friends described Oppenheimer as a changed and broken man. Though lauded by the world and universally recognized for his formidable intellect, the misadventures of his younger years were enough to discredit him in the eyes of the media and the members of the Eisenhower Administration. He knew he had lost control of his creation, that the tech he and his team had devised was out of his hands and the atomic genie was completely out of the bottle. There was no turning back, only quests for bigger and bigger bombs. His bomb wasn’t big enough to end war. It wasn’t even big enough to end bombs.
All of the actors in Oppenheimer are playing real people and do a bang-up job and yet are upstaged in an instant by Gary Oldman as President Truman. He is in only one scene but he just kills it. He pops with fiendish energy as he takes an instant dislike for Oppenheimer. He steals the scene right out from under Cillian Murphy who is acting his pants off throughout the picture as the twitchy-yet-stiff, genius-weirdo-celebrity scientist. Many of the actors melt into their roles, but Emily Blunt’s complicated Kitty, David Krumholtz’s Isidor Isaac Rabi, Matt Damon’s gruff General Groves and Florence Pugh’s tragic turn as Jean Tatlock deserve special mention. As the four closest to Oppenheimer, they get the bulk of the screen time with the intense-yet-stolid Murphy and are able to mirror his intensity without getting outshined.
Oppenheimer boils down to a dispute between two men. A petulant misunderstanding on one part, later some light-hearted mockery on the other and it was done. Their fates were set. It seems that one couldn’t bear to lose the ear of the President, one couldn’t bear to live in the shadow of the other, one had to make the other pay for slights real or imagined.
in 1967, Life magazine described J. Robert Oppenheimer as “one of the most famous men in the world, one of the most admired, quoted, photographed, consulted, glorified, well-nigh deified as the fabulous and fascinating archetype of a brand new kind of hero, the hero of science and intellect, originator and living symbol of the new atomic age.” He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times, in 1946, 1951 and 1967 but never won a single one. Oppenheimer died of cancer in 1967. He was 62 years old.
Oppenheimer opens in theatres Friday, July 21th.